Column: Breaking through the professional barrier

Asian American athletes in high profile sports — where are they?

Columnist Mark Lee

Columnist Mark Lee

By Mark Lee

At my high school, there were the freaks (also known as stoners), the jocks, and everybody else.

The football jocks were the royalty of the high school, and you felt honored if they took the time out of their glamorous life to say hi to you.

Timmy Chang

Photo by Jay Metzger/

Timmy Chang definitely qualified as a jock in high school and college. In case you have never heard of him, he was the University of Hawaii quarterback that holds the passing record in the NCAA division I. After reading a recent news article about him, I became interested in finding out more.

I spoke with Derek Inouchi, the media relations director at the University of Hawaii Athletic department. After asking a few naïve questions, Derek asked how much I knew about football. I had to confess and said, “not much.” In spite of my lack of knowledge, he was generous enough to provide me with an interesting summary of Chang’s career.

Derek stated that Timmy stood out as a quarterback at St. Louis High School in Hawaii.

During high school, he developed a good knowledge of the playbook. He studied the routes of where he was going to pass.

At the University of Hawaii, he was ready to go. The University of Hawaii had an emphasis on the passing game and Chang adapted well to the team’s approach based on the skills he developed in high school.

Some further research showed that Chang played five seasons (2000–2004) for the University of Hawaii Warriors where he started 50 of 53 games at quarterback.

However, his professional career did not really pan out. He signed for the Arizona Cardinals but was cut in training camp. He played preseason for the Detroit Lions but did not make the final roster.

He eventually played in the Canadian Football League and was released by the Blue Bombers in February 2009. As of May 2009, his plans were to return to school in Hawaii to finish his degree.

In July 2009, he was arrested in Hawaii for allegedly taking a camera away from a woman filming a fight. According to one news source, Chang had told the woman to stop filming and when she did not, he took the camera and threw it onto a rooftop.

This is definitely not commendable conduct, but on the scale of bad conduct by athletes (such as assaults or dog fighting), it could have been a lot worse.

It would be easy to be critical of Chang and complain that he did not make it in the big leagues. However, for him to get as far as he did is still a major accomplishment.

His story raises the general issue of Asian American athletes in high profile professional sports.

Jeremy Lin

Photo provided by Harvard University’s

Photo provided by Harvard University’s

Everybody knows about Ichiro and Yao Ming, but they came from Asia. They had the opportunity to move up and develop their skills in Asia before getting onto a U.S. team.

The question for me is whether an Asian American can have equal opportunity to work his or her way up the ranks in the United States.

The story of Jeremy Lin is an example of the kind of harassment that Asian Americans can face when getting into higher level sports.

As of December 2008, Lin was the starting point guard for Harvard University’s basketball team. After his Palo Alto High School team won the Division II state title in 2006, Lin was named first-team All-State and Northern California Division II Player of the Year during his senior season.

He didn’t receive any offers of scholarships from Division I schools (NCAA Division I schools are the top national sports colleges). In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he acknowledged that his accomplishments were not a guarantee into a Division I school, but suspected that he was treated differently due to his race.

He routinely encounters racial harassment during away games, hearing the standard list of racial stereotypes yelled at him while playing the game. It is disgraceful
that he has to go through this.

A legal argument could possibly be made that the universities who sponsor the basketball games have a legal obligation to curtail racial harassment of the players.

Title VI of the Federal Civil Rights act prohibits discrimination involving federally funded education programs, so the issue would be whether a college basketball game could fall under this classification based on its association with a university that receives federal funds. There also may be state civil rights laws that could apply to this type of situation.

Dat Nguyen

Photo provided by

Photo provided by

I would like to end this article with the story of Dat Nguyen, the NFL linebacker who was born in a refugee center in Arkansas after his family left Vietnam when Saigon fell to the communists.

After playing college football, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1999. He had a successful career and led the team in tackles in three separate years. After being sidelined by an injury, he was hired as an assistant coach for the Cowboys in 2007. He has an autobiography out, “Tackling Life and the NFL.”

Nguyen’s story shows what can be accomplished in the face of discrimination that Asian American athletes may encounter.

Professional athletes create inspiration, excitement, and admiration in a way that achievements in careers or business simply do not. Only a very small number of people can make it to the professional level. Though we should not worship pro athletes because they are just human, everyone  — regardless of race — should have an equal opportunity to make it in that field if they have the talent and the desire. ♦

Mark Lee can be reached at

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One Response to “Column: Breaking through the professional barrier”

  1. Anthony says:

    Chang has NCAA records that surpass Brady, Bradshaw, Montana, etc. and will probably never be touched. Maybe its the all the single sentence paragraphs but your story is really lite.


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